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Falcon’s “The Lion in Winter”: In Every Life, a Little Reign Must Fall

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of “The Lion in Winter”: Falcon Theatre

Falcon brings its own “Game of Thrones” a little early to Northern Kentucky with a sparkling production of “The Lion in Winter”, James Goldman’s renowned play (and later a classic movie starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn) about Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, as they spar while attempting to choose his successor between their three sons. There may not be blood and gore, explicit sex, or dragons, but there’s plenty of intrigue and scheming: even the Lannisters of Casterly Rock have nothing on the Plantagenets.

The date is 1183, and the aging Henry (Allen R Middleton), who, in addition to being king of England has a considerable empire in France, hosts a more-than-memorable family reunion for Christmas at his chateau in Chinon, Anjou. There is his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Tracy M. Schoster), who has been lately imprisoned for inciting a coup against Henry. There is his current young mistress, Alais (Lexi Rigsby), who is also a half-sister to Philip, the king of France, and therefore a potential unwilling marriage prize for one of his heirs. And, of course, there are the three sons: the martial Richard (Gregory Mallios), the eldest, favored for the throne by his mother; the youngest, John (Clay Winstead), favored by his father; and Geoffrey (Jared Earland), who is in the middle in more ways than one and has only his shrewd brain to give him any chance at power. Their party is rounded out by Philip himself (Dan Robertson), and the endless machinations and shifting loyalties begin as each jockey for for the throne.

For all the royal plotting going on, “The Lion in Winter” is more intimately concerned with the marvelous complexities of family dynamics, and director Tara Williams wisely finds ways to put the family relationships front and center. The costuming (Blair Godshall) and setting is all contemporary, which serves not only to distance the production from the otherwise incomparable movie, but also to put a finer focus and clarity on the characters for a modern audience. Henry is the consummate CEO (or possibly president?) with his suit and red power tie, and Middleton plays him masterfully with equal measure of urbane self-assurance and savage temperament when he can no longer rein in his simmering resentment against his family. Mallios plays Richard, in a smart uniform or battle fatigues, with appropriate pride and disdain but with hidden desires and weaknesses. Winstead’s John is hysterical as the typical clueless teenager, in unwashed T-shirt and filled with entitlement. Geoffrey is buttoned-up and clever, ready to move whichever way the wind blows, but Earland lets his vulnerability peek out to garner just enough sympathy. Robertson’s Philip is smarmy but commanding enough to (almost) stand toe-to-toe with Henry, while Rigsby plays Alais as much more than a pretty face but a force to be reckoned with in her own right.

And, of course, there is Eleanor herself, whom I left for last only because the character, and actress, is in a league of her own. Schoster commands every scene she is in, and without any overt attempt to mimic Hepburn still lends the character the same acerbity, wit, and radiance she was known for. Her Eleanor ranges effortlessly from weary to determined, warm to unyielding, teasing to deadly serious, and the audience can no more predict her moods or fathom her real motives than Henry or her sons can.

Williams directs this show with impeccable timing and pace. None of the humor or pathos is lost. There are no unnecessary distractions to the dialogue and the plot which are more than enough to keep the audience occupied. The set design (by Williams and Ted Weil) is simple, with white curtains, a folding couch/bed, and few props just evocative enough but not overpowering. The lighting (Stuart Wheaton) is subdued, and Weil’s sound design has just enough music to set the tone.

So, whether you prefer a darkly comic family drama, or can’t wait to find out who will sit on the Iron Throne of Westeros and are willing instead to see who will rule Henry’s Angevin empire, head on over to Falcon for “The Lion in Winter”, running through April 6th (www.falcontheater.net). You won’t be disappointed.